Mandatory Pro Bono: Get Ahead by Giving Back

May 4, 2015

Grant S. Palmer and Norman S. Heller

New York Law Journal

Most, if not all, Am Law 100 law firms have long had structured pro bono programs. These formal programs are commonplace today, but were relatively rare even 20 years ago. They typically include a formal written pro bono policy and committee, plus an attorney or a team of attorneys assigned to coordinate the firm's pro bono efforts. Even as pro bono work has become more structured, however, it has remained voluntary at all but a few firms. While most firms aspire to have every attorney take on pro bono engagements and encourage and support their attorneys to do so, the decision to donate professional time is left to each attorney.

Some firms are now rethinking that approach. A few, including our firm, Blank Rome, are requiring their attorneys from first-year associates to the managing partner to take on pro bono assignments.

Mandatory pro bono programs are good for the health and strength of law firms. Just as the legal industry witnessed the rapid adoption of structured, formal pro bono programs at large firms, mandatory pro bono programs are the wave of the future. More firms are likely to revise their policies to make clear that pro bono work is a requirement for every attorney—no exceptions.

Why Change to Mandatory Pro Bono?

Mandating charitable legal work is, of course, a major change in a firm's culture. There are many reasons for making that change—some altruistic and some self-serving—but the result is clear: When pro bono is mandatory in a firm, more of the less fortunate in our communities will receive legal assistance they so desperately need.

The most compelling reason to mandate pro bono work is because it is the right thing to do. We should do everything we can to seek equal access to justice for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. The underprivileged and underserved benefit greatly from even basic legal advice. The understanding that pro bono work makes a real difference in the lives of many people lies at the root of all pro bono programs and provides reason enough to consider mandating pro bono work.

But it is not the only reason. There are also, of course, less altruistic benefits for engaging in pro bono work. An important consideration is that corporate clients care about pro bono work by the law firms they retain. Charitable legal work by lawyers in corporate legal departments is growing exponentially. As in-house lawyers become more engaged in pro bono assignments, they want their outside lawyers to be equally generous with their time and expertise. Law firms are beginning to understand that by doing pro bono work alongside their clients, they not only contribute to their communities, but also develop and strengthen important relationships with their fee-paying clients. Firms with strong pro bono programs—and especially firms that require pro bono of every attorney—will have an advantage in securing pro bono partnerships with significant corporate clients.

Pro bono matters can also be an effective training ground for associates, especially at mid-sized and large firms. On pro bono cases, associates have an opportunity to take a lead role in a case and also receive advice and mentoring from senior attorneys. This is a critical pro bono benefit and one that should not be underestimated, particularly at a time when fee-paying clients are more resistant to working with less experienced attorneys.

There is, of course, a careful balance to be struck when assigning less experienced attorneys to handle pro bono matters. To ensure that pro bono clients' interests are protected as well as the firm's, and that the junior attorney receives meaningful training and feedback, the firm should assign a more experienced attorney to provide mentoring and training. Maintaining this balance is one of the duties of the professionals whom many large firms employ to implement their pro bono programs. Pro bono professionals establish processes such as client intake procedures and periodic status reports that ensure that associates are getting proper supervision from senior associates or partners. For more experienced lawyers, these supervisory roles provide a good opportunity to undertake meaningful pro bono work. Firms contemplating instituting mandatory pro bono should emphasize to their partners that the program will assist with associate training and also help partners satisfy their pro bono requirement.

The market to recruit and retain top legal talent at law firms is highly competitive. Pro bono work has long been something law students consider when deciding among future employers. In fact, many law students participate in pro bono work while in law school. Accordingly, having a strong pro bono program is a significant advantage to a firm when prospective attorneys are considering which firm to join.

Pro bono can also play a role in retaining talented junior lawyers who enjoy and benefit from these opportunities which they might not otherwise find in their day-to-day work. These real world experiences can translate into better results on fee-paying matters and often greater attorney job satisfaction. Attorneys in pro bono cases have more control over the types of cases they work on, the people with whom they work and the skills they are likely to acquire through the representations. Pro bono work provides associates a chance to build important relationships within and outside the firm. Of course, the opportunity to work on matters that are personally important to the individual attorney also increases job satisfaction, and with it the likelihood that those attorneys will remain at the firm.

There are, of course, potential risks involved with making pro bono mandatory. Some partners may resist participating. A mandatory pro bono policy will succeed only if all attorneys support it. If the policy is ignored by some, or if partners are allowed to avoid the requirement, the pro bono program will suffer both in terms of the good it does in the community and the perception in the firm of management's commitment to pro bono. Full buy-in by firm leadership is critical to ensure that any potential problems are ironed out before implementing a mandatory policy and that the program reaches its full potential.

Blank Rome's Experience

At Blank Rome, we instituted mandatory pro bono because we realized we could be and should be doing more to give back to our communities. We already had a strong history of working for the public good; in fact, our firm was founded by attorneys who made charitable legal work a top priority. We formalized our program in 2001 and hired a director of pro bono (who is a partner at the firm). We achieved some notable successes, but we realized we were relying on a small percentage of attorneys to carry the weight of the firm's commitment. Although some attorneys were doing outstanding pro bono work, too many were not doing enough, and some were not doing any at all.

We knew we needed to make a significant change and we did. On Sept. 1, 2014, pro bono became mandatory at Blank Rome. Starting Jan. 1, 2015, every attorney, from the managing partner to our newest associate, is required to perform, at a minimum, 25 hours of pro bono work per year—though our hope is that everyone will do at least 65 hours.

We implemented several key strategies to ensure a successful launch of the program. First, firm leaders strongly supported it; they were willing to do pro bono and encouraged others to follow their example. Second, the firm instituted several changes to the billable hours policy such as increasing annual billable hour credit for pro bono work from 65 to 100 hours (with associates being able to request additional credit for pro bono time above 100 hours). The firm also made a strong effort to locate compelling pro bono opportunities to make available to all of our attorneys.

At Blank Rome, the reaction to the mandatory pro bono policy has been very positive, and the results have been striking—particularly considering that the change occurred in the final quarter of last year. The percentage of attorneys participating in pro bono soared from 59 percent in 2013 to over 99 percent in 2014.

Perhaps most importantly, there is a renewed enthusiasm and excitement about giving back to our communities. Our attorneys are more active in pro bono, including our senior partners. More attorneys are involved in challenging litigation matters. This is a watershed moment at our firm, and we believe the credit is in large part due to the message sent by our new policy: We all do pro bono work. With firm management leading the way, we are confident that our efforts will continue to grow and flourish.

We also believe that just as the formalization of pro bono programs began with a few firms and then became more common, more firms will come to recognize that a mandatory policy is a powerful tool to help the less fortunate and also bring many benefits to the firm.

Reprinted with permission from the May 4, 2015, edition of New York Law Journal © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, reprints@alm.com or visit http://www.almreprints.com. To view the article online, please click here.